Developing Our Understanding of Male and Female

Joanna Bogle FAITH Magazine November – December 2012

Joanna Bogle shows how some post-Vatican developments can be brought together to clarify some contemporary confusions. This is in the spirit of Edward Holloway's Sexual Order and Holy Order pamphlet available from our subscriptions address or free online at
Did God make a mistake when he created two sorts of us, male and female?

In the last decades of the 20th century, it became very fashionable, and in some circles almost obligatory, to claim that there were no fundamental differences between males and females except for a few trifling matters of plumbing. Posters from a government office urged that girls and boys be treated alike in every possible particular: teachers should not say things like: "I need two strong boys to help carry this table." Children should not be lined up separately and it should never, ever, be hinted that girls might enjoy one activity and boys another. [1] Sexual differences, it was taught emphatically, were simply a matter of conditioning. People liked to quote Simone de Beauvoir: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." [2]

The feminist movement has many strands, and not least among these is an authentically Christian one. An emphasis on women's dignity has always been central to the Christian message from the time that Christ walked this earth and people "marvelled that he was talking to a woman". Christ deliberately chose women as the first witnesses of his Resurrection, at a time when in law the testimony of a woman witness was given no credence. And down all the centuries of Christian witness, there have been women saints and martyrs and mystics and missionaries, women in public life and women in families and women in politics and in teaching and in religious enclosure who have been central in the life of the Church.

"Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity 'in the image of God.' In their "being-man" and "being-woman", they reflect the Creator's wisdom and goodness." (Catechism of the Catholic Church). [3]

But - without going into great detail about the history and causes of 20th-century feminism - the genuine Christian aspects of the movement were swamped and crushed by other forces.

Much of the 1970s and 80s government-funded "anti-sexism" crusading looks very out of date now, and children brought up under this regime are now adults and rejecting it. Boys suffered most. Always over-represented in remedial reading classes (boys learn to talk later than girls, and are less "verbal" throughout their childhood), their problems got larger as all books and reading materials became steadily more unattractive to them by being "sex neutral". Endless pictures of talkative girls in dungarees having adventures sent out a message that boys were, at best, a very optional extra in life. School, always a place where girl-style project-work and answering up with bright interest were rewarded, became increasingly a place where boy-style things such as competitive activities, ortaking charge of open spaces, were seen as being a nuisance, even at playtime.

The denigration of marriage, and the emphasis on women and men claiming "empowerment" by divorcing sexual communion from marriage and family and even from lifelong and deep personal attachment, brought a ghastly loneliness. Deprived of fathers - and even of father-figures depicted with clear masculine identity in the mass media or in general culture - boys lost out, in some cases with almost irrecoverable results.

In the Church, of course, the feminist clichés became rampant. Down all the centuries, women have been the first teachers of prayer in the family, teaching the small children, praying with the elderly and sick, making a little shrine or prayer-corner with a statue and flowers and a candle. But the emphasis on feminisation of liturgy that began in the 1970s and 80s - all that hand-holding and "spontaneous" Bidding Prayers, and touchy-feely hymns pitched too high for men to sing - made Sunday Mass repellent to many a male.

Today, we are living - in the Church and in society - not so much with militant feminism as with its after-effects. Not least is the angry disorientation of young men. You see it in obvious things: the loss of the sense of chivalry, of male strength placed at the service of the family and the community, and the rise of a massive gang-culture. You also see it in more subtle ways. In the Church, it is now easy to get a laugh and sense of common unity among young males in any audience by references to "elderly nuns in crimplene playing guitars" as a sort of general way of sneering at the 1970s-style liturgy. But deeper issues connected to, for example, achieving good male/female relationships and above all loving and fruitful lifelong marriages, are harder to explore.

But God doesn't leave his Church to struggle alone. He is always there, and bringing the solutions. John Paul II, presenting his "Theology of the Body" complemented what had begun many years earlier with a renewed understanding of the spiritual realities of the importance of humanity created male and female, expressed in particular by the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, and developed by Joseph Ratzinger (now, and gloriously, Benedict XVI, and still developing and teaching it).

Put simply, it's all about the Bridegroom and the Bride. It's all about the nuptial meaning of things, great things, eternal things. It's all about the "great signs" that Christ gave us. It's about the Wedding at Cana; it's about the nuptial meaning of the Eucharist; it's about Christ and his Church; it's about God and Israel; it's about Mary, the Daughter of Sion; it's about you and me made in the image of God.

Let us go - not to the very beginning, not yet, we'll go there later - but to that wedding at Cana. It is highly significant (literally a sign) that we are not told the names of the bridegroom and bride. This was a real event, a real wedding. But its significance is deeper. We are meant to learn that Christ is the Bridegroom. At the behest of Mary, whom he addresses as "Woman", signifying a link with the very first woman, mentioned in Genesis, Christ turns water into wine. And he does so in superabundance: there are gallons and gallons of the finest wine, and it all points to the great and final fulfilment of things, as this best wine has been left to the end of the feast.

When Mary first addresses Christ at Cana, he tells her: "My time has not yet come." His "time", his hour, is the hour of his Passion and death on the Cross. At that time, on the night before his death, he will take wine, and consecrate it, giving us the Eucharist.

The Wedding at Cana points us to the Last Supper, to the Mass, to Calvary. And the whole message is nuptial - man and woman, a link back to Genesis, a look ahead to Christ as the Bridegroom and his Church, the Bride.

The famous hymn honouring the Church says it all:

"From Heaven he came and sought her To be his holy Bride With his own blood he bought her And for her life he died." [4]

And Mary's role in all of this is crucial. This is something that was made very clear at the Second Vatican Council. It was decided - after a very narrow vote and a quite passionate debate - that there should be a special section on Mary in the document on the Church, rather than dedicating a document to her alone. Some saw in this an attempt to downplay Mary's role. But in fact what emerged was a new and deeper understanding of Mary, which became clearer and clearer through the reign of Blessed John Paul. This is something important, so we should not just think: "Oh, here we are on easy territory - JPII's devotion to Mary, and that great big M on his coat-of-arms, and all that..." It is essential to grasp the theology involved.

John Paul spoke of the "Marian" dimension of the Church. This is something that was much explored by Hans Urs von Balthasar, and also by another theologian who deeply influenced both John Paul II and Benedict XVI: Henri de Lubac. Mary's "yes" at the Annunciation is the fundamental moment on which all history rests. She is the Maid of Israel, the Daughter of Sion, who stands at the pivotal point where the Old Covenant meets the New. As a daughter of Israel, she knows about God's Covenant promise to his people, and how this was expressed and taught down the centuries. Now she willingly consents to the message sent by God through an angel. The New Covenant is established in her womb. This is the beginning of the Church. Her "fiat" is the beginning of the Church's ministry.

The Church is not essentially a structure of hierarchy, dispensing the sacraments according to certain regulations. It's not a "perfect society" which seeks to impose its rule on the world by an alliance with governments to form Catholic states so that everything can be ordered according to a common teaching. It's something much richer than that: it's Christ's Mystical Body, as Pius XII explained and taught in an encyclical named precisely that, Mystici Corporis (1943), written in wartime and with a profound message to an anguished humanity seeking some sort of meaning and hope in a chaotic era. That encyclical developed a teaching that would be taken forward to the Second Vatican Council, and emphasised again and again during John Paul's pontificate, with this added Mariandimension.

Certainly this "Marian Church" is a very important topic for today. It is not enough - it never has been, but it certainly is inadequate in the internet era of informal get-togethers and unstructured communication - to talk about rules and hierarchy as if they were the centre of things. There is a structure to the Church: a body collapses without a skeleton (von Balthasar's imagery again). [5] But the Marian Church, the Church of "Yes", of service and celebration of God's plan, of pondering in the heart and suffering with Christ at the foot of the Cross - this Marian Church is very much a Church that people can understand and recognise, and can come to know and love.

Brendan Leahy, professor of theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, and a Balthasar scholar, writes: "Referring to Mary, John Paul pointed out that love is the essential value for everyone: 'to serve is to reign'. He viewed women as the guardians of primary values and, above all, of the value of love which must be foremost in the Church. Everything else will pass away. Only love remains. Pope John Paul considered women as linked particularly to the Church's Marian profile, which he defined as perhaps 'its most fundamental dimension' - a profile that is emerging gradually." [6]

"All this the Church knows," says de Lubac, "and that is why, instinctively, she makes all things come by way of Our Lady. She 'flies to her protection', shelters under her mantle, and utters her own praise under the lead of Mary's." [7]

Now all this may seem a longish way from debates about modern feminism. But is it? It's time now to go back to the beginning of things, to Genesis. No, this doesn't mean a debate about whether the world was created six thousand years ago. The Book of Genesis is explaining who we are in God's plan: it's not a geology textbook. And in God's plan we are created male and female. "Here we find the heart of God's original plan and the deepest truth about man and woman as willed and created by him. Although God's original plan for man and woman will later be upset and darkened by sin, it can never be abrogated." (Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2004).

Marriage between a man and a woman is God's original plan, and as the beautiful statement in the Nuptial Mass reminds us it is "the one blessing not destroyed by Original Sin, or washed away in the flood". Pope John Paul expanded on all of this in his Theology of the Body. The Church celebrates every wedding with great enthusiasm and joy. "The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator...their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator's eyes..." (Catechism of the Catholic Church). [8]

In the coming years, as today's young men and women take up their responsibilities and seek to make sense of the world, it will not be adequate if Catholics who are worried - as we all ought to be - about the sexual mayhem that has been created in recent years simply denounce the evils of extreme feminism or even of the ghastly contraceptive, anti-life culture with which it has been associated. What is needed is a coherent and attractive vision for the cooperation of man and woman in the always exciting task of building a life together and fostering a civilisation. This is, at heart, a theological matter: it concerns our understanding of God and his loving care of us all.

In this second decade of the new Millennium, a vital topic of pastoral concern in the Church is going to be focusing on the specific needs of young men. It will be important for pastors, and catechists, and teachers in Catholic schools, to teach about the heroes of the Church: missionaries and martyrs, statesmen, explorers, writers, musicians. The Jesuit North American martyrs who mapped out the river highways of Canada, and who faced hideous tortures and martyrdom with exemplary courage... the martyrs of the English reformation, such as Thomas More, Ralph Sherwin and Edmund Campion... missionary heroes like Damien of Molokai...modern heroes like Poland's Jerzy Popieluszko and the monks of Tibhirine... these are men to inspire new generations and to be genuine, real-life role modelsfostering the heroic values needed for this century.

And it will also be crucial to emphasise the fundamental unity that should exist between man and woman, male and female, the centrality of marriage not as a mere socially useful arrangement that might finally one day come into its own again, but as part of God's original plan "from the beginning", the great fact that the whole story of our redemption is a marriage story centred on Christ the Bridegroom and his Church, the Bride.

God loved us so much that he came, conceived as a human male under the beating heart of a human mother, right into our world. In his life, death and resurrection, in his Church, he has given us all sorts of rich and coherent teachings with which we can be guided in our own life journeys. Being a man or a woman is "very good" and life is meant to be a joyful adventure, finally celebrated in the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb which we all seek to witness and in which all our earthly explorations and ponderings of these profound issues will reach their utter fulfilment.

[1] Literature from the Equal Opportunities Commission, 1981.
[2] De Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex.
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 369.
[4] Samuel Stone, 1866. Stone was an Anglican clergyman: the sentiments are entirely correct and Catholic.
[5] Von Balthasar, Hans Urs, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, Ignatius USA 1986.
[6] Leahy, Brendan. Believe in Love: The Lifef Ministry and Teachings of John Paul II, Veritas, Dublin, page 138.
[7] De Lubac, Henri The Splendour of the Church, Sheed and Ward 1958, current edition Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1999, page 345.
[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1603-1604.

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